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Louis XVI died with dignity, executioner writes

Written by: Staff

LONDON, Apr 8 (Reuters) French King Louis XVI died regally, according to his executioner's account written to correct reports that his nerve broke when faced with the revolutionary mob and the guillotine in January 1793.

Now the original letter by Charles Henri Sanson, chief executioner of Paris as the revolution's reign of terror began, is to go under the hammer at Christie's in London on June 7 with a price of up to (210,000 dollars).

Sanson details the demeanour of Louis, whose Austrian wife Marie Antoinette was executed nine months later and is famously said to have suggested that starving pre-revolutionary peasants should eat cake when their bread ran out.

Lost from public view for nearly 200 years in the archives of an unnamed family, Sanson's account echoes that of Henry Edgeworth, a French-based English priest who accompanied Louis in the carriage to the guillotine.

Sanson, who oversaw the execution of more than 2,900 people between 1778 and his retirement in April 1793, tells how Louis, at the foot of the scaffold, initially resisted having his coat removed for reasons of decorum but then took it off himself.

He also did not want his hands tied at first, but was persuaded to comply.

''To pay homage to the truth, he withstood all that with a composure and steadiness that astonished us all,'' Sanson wrote to the Thermometre du Jour revolutionary journal.

''I remain very convinced that he had drawn this steadiness from the principles of religion, of which nobody more than he appeared deeply affected and persuaded,'' Sanson added.

His account, last referred to by Chateaubriand in 1826, contradicted another version in circulation at the time that described Louis as having to be forced to mount the scaffold at pistol point, crying out: ''I am lost, I am lost.'' In the moments before the blade fell, Sanson says Louis turned to the mob and proclaimed ''People, I die innocent''.

He then turned to his executioners with the words: ''Gentlemen, I am innocent of everything of which I am accused. I hope that my blood can cement the happiness of the French.'' In the letter, dated ''Paris, 20 February 1793, first year of the French republic,'' Sanson signs off with the words: ''You can be assured, citizen, that here is the truth in its greatest day.'' REUTERS CH PM1543

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